In his first speech in Florida since becoming a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont independent socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a searing indictment of the American capitalist system, but also spoke in strong terms about reforming the criminal justice system, in the wake of a series of incidents where black people have died while being detained or in custody.
Sanders was the fourth of the five presidential candidates who spoke on Friday morning at the National Urban League’s annual meeting at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center.
The 73-year-old Brooklyn native has become one of the surprise stories of this political year, as his critiques about income inequality have touched the hearts and minds of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Two nights earlier, Sanders spoke via a live stream to more than 3,000 house parties across the country. Although he still trails front-runner Hillary Clinton significantly in most polls, one survey taken last week had him within 13 percentage points of her in New Hampshire, the home of the nation’s first primary election next February.
Speaking to Urban League delegates about the problems in current society, Sanders twice warned the audience that what he had to say might be harsh, but needed to be said.
“I think when we have a nation today where a handful of billionaires who have an unbelievable influence over the economic and political life of this country,” he said dramatically. “There is nothing significant that we will accomplish unless we have the courage to take them on. And that is what this campaign is about!” he said to polite applause.
He went on to recite the statistics that bear out how the extreme wealth in this country is concentrated in a small minority (the 1 percent, if you will).
“The truth of the matter is that we cannot run away from that reality,” he said. “Income and wealth inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time. It is the great social and political issue of our time, and together we must addresss that issue,” again receiving a nice round of applause, but hardly the roars that he’s received on the campaign trail in front of some of the largest crowds that any candidate has received in 2015 (and that includes Donald Trump).
Sanders went on to discuss some policies that he has espoused on the campaign trail — such as going to a single-payer healthcare system, pushing for legislation that would make every public college and university in the nation provide free tuition, and calling for a hike to a $15 minimum wage.
But what distinguished this speech was his emphasis on civil rights. Sanders has been criticized by black activists for not being more inclusive in his message, but he more than compensated for that on Friday, beginning by saying that “We need to deal with some hard realities.”
He then went on to lay out the numbers, like how one in every four black men being born today can expect to spend some time in prison during their lifetime. “This is an unspeakable tragedy, and this country can no longer afford that,” he thundered.
He quoted a Department of Justice report that said that blacks are three times more likely to be searched in a traffic stop than white motorists, twice as likely to be arrested, and four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police. He mentioned how 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions.
“In my view, we need major changes in criminal justice in America,” he said. “And as president of the United States, I promise you my Justice Department will be vigorous in fighting all forms of discrimination, in every area of our life. Not only in police matters, but in housing, in credit, in every area that impacts minority populations.”
Along with Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley (who also spoke on Friday), Sanders took heat from Black Lives Matter activists at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix earlier in July. After reciting the names of those black men and women who have died at the hands of law enforcement over the past year, Sanders said, “We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody.”
“Let us all be very clear,” he continued. “Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement, sworn to protect and serve their communities, is unacceptable, and must not be tolerated. We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter, and we must value black lives.”